As racial tensions continue to escalate in the United States and across the Western world, Christians cannot be silent. While Christians disagree over how much racial injustice still remains, we should be united in exulting the gospel of Jesus Christ as the best answer for racism in all its forms. Most of our parents or grandparents were alive for segregation in the United States, evils in which much of the church was complicit, so it’s hard to argue that no work remains to be done in developing a robust theology of race, weeding out generational prejudice, and exploring the broader social implications of the gospel.
Racial tensions may be hyper-politicized, but that does not excuse us from confronting the real problems that exist. The sad fact that some fundamentalists still oppose interracial marriage is for me the log in the eye that betrays lingering racial sin. While recently attempting to have a civil conversation on this issue, an opponent of interracial marriage dismissed my arguments in one broad stroke: “When I was growing up, I didn’t hear anything about racism. Your generation has made racism the cardinal sin.” Yes, I too fear that the church will preach social justice in lieu of repentance from sin, personal regeneration, and holiness of heart and life. But no, I cannot ignore real issues that God cares about and speaks to in the Scriptures. Love for neighbor binds us to speak grace and truth to every image-bearer who has been wounded by injustice.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the best answer for racism in all its forms.
In nearly every book of the New Testament, social and cultural barriers (especially Jew-Gentile relations) are confronted. Compare this to the Scriptures on justification by faith, which is rarely mentioned outside of Romans and Galatians. This is not to displace justification as foundational and central to the gospel. Rather, it is to remind us of the important and oft-neglected social ramifications of Christ’s accomplished redemption. Here are just a few samples from Paul’s epistles:
- 1 Corinthians 12:13, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.”
- Colossians 3:11, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.”
- Ephesians 2:14, “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.”
- Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
While the Jew-Gentile divide is not exactly the same as the black-white divide, the two issues are closely correlated. Opposing marriage between believers solely on the basis of skin color, for example, is no better than Peter’s refusal to eat with Gentiles. Both “nullify the grace of God” (Gal. 2:12).
In light of Christ’s destruction of the dividing walls, how should the church, God’s new humanity, live out the good news? How should God’s one people in Christ navigate the racial tensions of our day? How should Christians engage with the culture on issues of racial justice? It requires extraordinary wisdom, and I don’t claim to have all the answers. But it helps to start with an unambiguous condemnation of racism in all its forms. This is where formal statements come in, and why I was pleased to learn about a new statement on racism and the gospel: “The Broken Wall of Hostility.”
My interest was piqued when I heard that the primary author of the statement is Craig S. Keener, one of the best contemporary commentators on Scripture and one of the few writing from a Wesleyan perspective. Keener is the F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and President of the Evangelical Theological Society. He is best known for his 4,500-page commentary on Acts which cites around 45,000 ancient extrabiblical references. But what I like most about Keener is his warm, sincere, and vibrant spirituality. He deeply cares about the holiness of the church and her transformation by the Spirit. If you listen to Keener for long, it’s hard to dislike him.
Other initial signatories include D. A. Carson, Timothy George, Michael J. Kruger, and R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
The statement, “The Broken Wall of Hostility,” is preceded by Ephesians 2:14–16 which refers to the “wall of hostility” that Christ has destroyed through the cross:
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility . . . to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. (NIV, emphasis original)
The entire statement is less than 300 words including two dozen Scripture references. It begins:
Today’s situation requires more than a statement, but certainly no less than a statement. As evangelical academic voices, we condemn racism as contrary to Scripture and to the evangelical gospel. Evangelical history includes positively many voices for justice and pioneers of abolitionism, such as William Wilberforce, but also negatively those who assimilated the values of their surrounding unjust culture. Yet the basis of evangelical faith is Scripture, climaxing in the good news of Jesus Christ.
John Wesley, just six days before his death, famously wrote a letter to William Wilberforce encouraging him to press on in the fight against slavery. In the letter, Wesley’s last writing, he commends Wilberforce for “opposing that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature.” His words are heart-stirring: “Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.” Imagining what Wesley might say to us today, Andrew C. Thompson writes, “Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till every expression of racist sentiment and all forms of racial prejudice vanish away before it.”
Racial tensions may be hyper-politicized, but that does not excuse us from confronting the real problems that exist.
The remainder of the statement, “The Broken Wall of Hostility,” makes five important points:
- In this gospel, everyone must come to God on the same terms (Rom 1:16; 3:22-24; 10:12-13; Gal 3:28; Rev 5:9; 7:9), and become one body in Christ (Rom 12:4-5; 1 Cor 12:12-13; Eph 4:4; Col 3:15).
- In reconciling Jew and Gentile in Christ (Eph 2:16), surmounting a barrier that God himself once established, God in Christ summons us to surmount every barrier erected merely by human sinfulness.
- Scripture does not discriminate by color, and, on the most common understanding of Acts 8, the first Gentile convert may have been Black and from Africa.
- Jesus, both by his example and by his teaching, summons us to serve and love fellow believers to the point of laying down our lives for them (John 13:14-17, 34-35; 1 John 3:16-18), and to love all our neighbors as ourselves (Lev 19:18; Mark 12:31; Rom 13:8-10; Gal 5:14).
- This invites us to be swifter to listen to others than to speak (Eph 4:29; Jms 1:19), to mourn with those who suffer (Rom 12:15), and to join them in acting for justice on their behalf (Isa 1:17; Luke 11:42; Jms 1:27).
These are not the world’s truths; they are our truths. No matter what the world is or is not saying, we should be happy to say what Scripture says. There is much more to say, but I’m thankful for Keener and others who are leading the way in articulating foundational truths that can help to ground our discourse. You can read and sign the statement at evangelicalstatement.com.
Read also: Systemic Racism and the Church by Phil Brown.